“What Happened” Event Panelists Unpacks What to Expect in the Next Four Years of Policy and Partisanship

Panelists discuss what happened in the 2020 election. Photo courtesy of Olivia Gieger ’21.

On Nov. 8, the college hosted the third of its series of panels scheduled to follow Tuesday’s presidential election. The event, “What’s Happening/What Happened?: Reflections on the Election and Its Aftermath,” was the first of the panels held after President-Elect Joe Biden officially declared victory on Saturday. 

Moderator Austin Sarat, the William Nelson Cromwell professor of jurisprudence and political science, associate provost and associate dean of the faculty, focused on what Biden’s apparent win would mean for the future of democracy and the Democratic Party. He prefaced the discussion by highlighting the major emerging themes surrounding election takeaways, including the polls’ failure to predict outcomes, the record high voter turnout and the “blue trickle,” rather than expected sweeping wave. 

Sarat was joined by four alumni panelists: former Republican Congressman Tom Davis ’79 H’09; Chloe McKenzie ’14, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology, researcher of financial sustainability and founder and CEO of BlackFem; Jennifer Peter ’90, senior deputy managing editor at The Boston Globe; and Paul Smith ’76 H’15, vice president of litigation & strategy at the Campaign Legal Center. 

Sarat opened the panel by asking Davis about the takeaways he drew to explain why each party saw the outcomes that they did. While Davis found optimism in Biden’s ability to work with Senate Republicans, he saw the election’s outcome as a sign of a nation truly divided. 

Trump’s loss was “not a rebuke of him on the issues, but of his personality,” Davis said, pointing to the vast electoral split and Republican gains across ballot races at every level. Perhaps, he suggested, Biden will be the president who can take these divided policy stances and build something productive. “If there was ever a person who could take advantage of divided government at this point [it’s Biden],” he said. He explained that in the coming administration, he will  keep the ways Biden works with Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, with whom he has a long-standing working relationship, on his radar. 

Davis also added that he will look to the ways that Biden uses the power vested in the office of the president through executive orders and regulations, where the real weight of executive power has shifted in the past decade. 

Sarat then pivoted to ask McKenzie what policy work people can “expect and demand” from Biden, especially when it comes to dismantling systemic racism.

“[We are] in need of healing,” she said. “What are we healing from? The real sickness that we need to heal from is white supremacy. From trauma, if we don’t heal, then we will continue to go forward with it — it lives in our policies.”

What might some of those re-imagined policies look like? McKenzie started by dreaming big, joking that even during her time at Amherst she liked to brainstorm with the broadest ideas possible. “My advice to Biden would be that we need to protect the people that he thanked [specifically Black women, largely credited with his victory] with deliberate action around this, she said. “Maybe the next round of [Paycheck Protection Program loans] will go to minority- and women-owned businesses. Would people freak out about that? Yeah. But who cares? Would there be political backlash? Probably. Other kinds of backlash? Probably, but at that point, you ultimately need to have more targeted measures to address where white supremacy is showing up [regarding] what’s happened historically, but then also how that’s playing out in this particular moment. [In our policies, need] a very specifically targeted measure that’s going to address the unique experience that people have in this moment.”

It’s policies like this and the frank conversations surrounding it, she argued, that will help address the roots of white supremacy that are necessary for true reconciliation. “If we are to heal from trauma — and our country is traumatized not just from the last four years — […] we have to put together a cohesive understanding of what we experienced. That requires a very blunt truth about how white supremacy is operating, how white supremacy is very alive and well, and what is incumbent upon different groups to do about it. I say this to all the other students of color at Amherst, it’s our job to end respectability. It’s no longer our job to make people feel comfortable.” 

Doing so, requires an end to what McKenzie called “respectability politics.” She differentiated the roles of “truth telling,” as compared to “narrative building” in today’s political discourse. Narrative building, she argued, is what dominates while it works to make people complacent  and comfortable with the systems of oppression that dictate outcomes. Truth telling, she suggested, is an ability to name systems and explain them for what they are, is where real growth can happen. “I’m no longer interested in making other people feel comfortable about the serious, intractable and damaging experience or inequality that I face,” she said. “To heal we ultimately have to deal with that truth.” 

Sarat picked up this question of truth with Peter, of The Globe, to consider the media’s role in rooting out truth when it comes to elections and policy making. She grappled with the question of how to restore an even more basic form of reverence for the truth, among both politicians and the public, after an administration that routinely propagated disinformation. 

“I’ve been coming out of this election thinking of a way that we can revive truth and revive the facts as a currency we can all agree on, even if we disagree on what they mean. That’s my top concern as someone who has been a journalist for thirty years now,” Peter said. 

She explained that she didn’t find much of Davis’ same hope for more coalition building if the nation fails on this simple act of shared reverence for truth. “I don’t know how we start to move forward with the new administration and bridge the divide without at least agreeing on the facts.” 

Though Sarat prodded about what the press’s role is in restoring this faith, Peter worried that “people who don’t want to hear it, don’t hear it.” She expressed how this eroding trust of news outlets and their truth telling abilities made it daunting to even address clear lies.” Yet, “I’ve come to think, particularly in this past week that — as uncomfortable as it makes me — there’s more of an activist role to play in not to hesitate when someone is saying something that’s blatantly untrue or not proven,” she said. “We are not doing this because he’s a Republican. We are doing this because we are holding him accountable in a way that’s important for the news media to do.”

The road to fully reconciling that role is still long.“I don’t know exactly the way forward when there’s an organization as powerful as Fox News.”

Yet, to Sarat, doing so, “in some sense … is the question: How is it that we are going to reconstruct the public sphere that is willing to confront the truths that [McKenzie] was talking about among others?”

Peter hopes that a starting point, at least, is a Biden administration whose press secretary prioritizes truth.

And the opportunity for that exists. Sarat closed by asking each panelist their greatest takeaway from this past week of election returns. While many panelists echoed the powerful testament to democracy that the high turnout illustrated, Davis left the audience with a reminder of the potential that this incoming administration holds: “This is going to be an opportunity. The Biden administration can end in gridlock or it can produce some very productive things depending on the leaders,” he said and offered a call to Republican leaders to “sit down and work with him — they don’t need to defeat Biden, [they] need to work with him.” 

“You can’t always get what you want, but you can get what you need,” Davis said, closing as he opened by quoting the Rolling Stones to suggest that perhaps Biden, and his ability to  “to try to slow things down, move ahead slowly, gradually try to bring things together” is the saltine the nation needs after four years of stomachache.